Culture Writer Abi Kinsella praises the author Natasha Pulley for her masterful use of magical realism and believable characters, but most of all for her treatment of love, both quiet and loud

Written by Abi Kinsella
Images by Waterstones

I have something called colour-word synaesthesia. When I read a word, the back of my brain registers it as a colour. The word ‘rabbit’ is green, the word ‘table’ is red, and so on. As well as operating on that individual level, it also means that whole texts take on colours in my mind. Most are a hazy watercolour, a thin wash made up of similar colours.

Pulley’s novels, on the other hand, are a vibrant and rich technicolour

Natasha Pulley’s novels, on the other hand, are a vibrant and rich technicolour. There is something deeply special about them. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes them the enrapturing reading experience that they are, but I have some ideas.

Pulley’s novels can loosely be described as magical realism – that is, magical elements treated as an integral and unquestioned part of the world we already know. But that categorisation doesn’t quite do the intricate world-building justice. When I (regularly) pitch Pulley’s novels to people, I describe them as, ‘If science were shifted two inches to the left.’ She seems to view the world as the clockwork integral to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street and The Lost Future of Pepperharrow. She sits before it, in all its ticking complicacy. Tightens a cog here, loosens one there, removes one here, discards one there. She perfects the altered space, filing and polishing, right down to the tiniest of details. And she is left with a world that is so familiar but shines a subtly different hue. A world where electricity crackles in the air (The Lost Future of Pepperharrow), where cliffs of glass tower (The Bedlam Stacks) and where the line between the past and the present can be stepped over as easily as a pavement crack (The Kingdoms).

Despite the layers upon layers of detail in her worlds, Pulley manages to allow whimsy to dance in the cracks

Somehow, despite the layers upon layers of detail in her worlds, Pulley manages to allow whimsy to dance in the cracks. These elements somehow feel both joyfully self-indulgent and wholly necessary. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street’s Katsu – a sock-stealing clockwork octopus – for example, serves three distinct purposes. Firstly, he makes the reader smile. Secondly, he lets the reader into their world. He is a signpost that you are not quite in the London that you are used to – you are instead in a London where the line between dreams and reality is drawn in pencil rather than ink. And thirdly, he humanises Mori. He gives him something that characters of his type – mysterious, elusive, fragile – are so rarely permitted: a childish side.

Pulley’s characters are like vast polyhedrons, with each face painted an elaborate portrait. And they are so heart-wrenchingly human. They say things they do not mean, they get jealous about unimportant things and excuse things they shouldn’t. They allow themselves to be walked all over, they have ideas above their station, they feel longing and guilt and regret. They experience traumas that make them grow and traumas that simply make them sad. They have flashes of joy and prolonged moments of bliss and bask in moments when they are simply permitted to be.

Pulley’s characters are like vast polyhedrons, with each face painted an elaborate portrait

I think that what sets Pulley’s characters apart for me – what makes them so rich and believable – is that they are reactionary. They do not respond consistently to every situation, they may be rational one minute and juvenile the next. Maybe this is because they are altitude sick and miserable (The Bedlam Stacks) or maybe there is no reason at all. It is certainly because they are human.

There is a common thread with Pulley’s protagonists. They are rational, observant creatures, resigned to the fact that bad hands are sometimes dealt. And they say they accept it, but the reader implicitly understands that is not true. As their cynicism leaks out, it becomes clear that it is a particular kind of cynicism that can only be born of hope. Pulley’s characters know that there is beauty in the world, they appreciate it in deep affection for cups of tea with a slice of cake, and for piano sonatas. They love the details of the world and know it could be better.

Ultimately, they are novels about queer characters finding happiness

Love permeates Pulley’s novels. They are whirlwinds of plot and action, but ultimately, they are novels about queer characters finding happiness. It may be bittersweet, in fact, it is usually bittersweet. But it is the sort of happiness that catches in your throat and stays there, until it has no choice but to come back the way it came, in the audible sound of a wet gasp. She manages to balance quiet love – the mornings under the covers, the evenings watching sunsets – and loud love – cries of passion and hot tears – so delicately. It feels real and it feels whole.

Natasha Pulley’s novels are about love and they are born of love. They are intricately crafted, idealistically dreamt and gloriously realised.

I think everyone should read them.


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